Belize: take it or leave it, mon
Everyone speaks so highly of Belize that it’s difficult not to have high expectations for the country. World-class diving, a beautiful coastline, incredible nature preserves: these are the wonders I have to expect. Belize is also the melting pot for America if ever I’ve seen one. People of every color course the streets of Belize. English is the official language, but don’t expect to understand Belizian English. Everyone bastardizes it with a unique twist of their own foreign tongues.
The white Mennonites wear coveralls and straw hats; they ride horse-drawn buggies and focus on agriculture and woodworking. They also speak German. The brown Latin Americans speak Spanish and Mayan; they sell tacos and plates of stewed meats with rice and beans in the streets. The black African American men wear baggy clothes, and some keep their hair in dreadlocks; the women wear tight-fitting, colorful garments. Both bop around the streets to the sound of reggae, and they shout Creole to each other. The Asians are the business people. Indians sell durable goods like clothes and electronics; they speak with very distinct Indian accents. The Chinese sell groceries and fried chicken; no discernible amount of English ever comes out of their mouths.
And yet amid such an inability to communicate, everyone seems to work and live together in peace. When I ask if people get along here, the answer is always a resounding yes. It’s as if the incredible ethnic diversity among Belizians is the commonality gluing everyone together. Solidarity among such a visibly diverse people is quite refreshing. However, don’t mistake this sense of unity among Belizians as blanket tolerance.
I was hesitant to even come to Belize. The country is hostile toward non-heterosexuals. In Belize, homosexual immigrants are prohibited from entering the country, and gays and lesbians can face ten years in prison if found guilty of “carnal intercourse.” Belizian leaders condemn homosexuality and refuse to support LGBT rights. They even go so far as to denounce aid from counties like the United States when a president alludes to that aid being dependent upon acceptance of gays.
In fact, Belize and Guyana are the only countries of mainland America to criminalize same-sex sexual intercourse. Their disdain seems to have immigrated from the Caribbean islands where homosexuality is also criminal. From Jamaica in the north all the way to Trinidad and Tobago in the south, gays beware. But on a map of the Americas, these outdated beliefs are isolated. The twenty other countries of North, Central, and South America recognize and/or support LGBT rights.
By every measure of my own morality, Belize is not where I want to spend my money. At the same time, enduring Belize is the only way into Guatemala unless I want to backtrack 1000 miles through Mexico. And so with as much confidence for a safe passage as I can muster, I will take the shortcut and all the adventure it entails. I might as well see what all the fuss is about. For the good, this is a story about the incredible culture, humility, and diversity coursing through the streets of Belize. But this is also a story of close calls, corruption, and deceit that ends badly for one unsuspecting American and puts me on a direct path for the border — eager to leave.
Drama at the border sets the tone for Belize. I learn that money is the lube to make for a smooth ride through the country. An overpriced hotel room is only the beginning. Everything is overpriced here. I even get up from a restaurant table after gasping at the prices. A stroll through the grocery store weakens my confidence even more. Basic food items like canned meat and pasta cost twice those found in the United States and easily four times that found in Mexico. A liter of boxed milk will set me back USD $3. A small jar of peanut butter costs $8, and corn flakes go for $7! Luxury food like ice cream is way out of reach at $45 per gallon.
When food alone costs so much, who can afford to live here? Now I understand why the homes look two shakes away from collapse. With barely enough money for food, there’s no money for infrastructure. The road system is a patchwork of concrete, asphalt, gravel, and stone. The streets of Belize City are overrun with starved and bandaged homeless-looking beggars.
During my second day at the overpriced hotel in Belize City, I run into a fellow American. He’s here for the world-class diving, something I regretfully cannot afford. While I cannot go diving with Rick, I can share some beers before he leaves on his dive trip. Beer in Belize is as world-class as the diving. The Belikin Stout is the best beer I’ve had since Texas. Rick and I buy three apiece and head to the streets to do what the locals do amid high-priced food: we drink our dinner.
We also get to know each other. Rick is a young guy. He speaks confidently about life while simultaneously sounding like someone who lives by a lot of trial and error. He chooses informal work that most people would say is synonymous with gambling… or worse. It’s obvious by his short introduction, he likes to party. His friends like to party. He likes to help his friends party. I get the idea.
Our walk takes us across a bridge and into a multi-cultural wonderment. We take seats on the curb of a Shell station and crack our first beers. The sign overhead advertises gasoline for USD $6.50 per gallon. A lot of the movement before us looks like movement for no other reason. A man walks barefoot across the street only to walk back again. Big trucks drive around with their cargo holds empty. Others haul beautiful hand-crafted furniture to who-knows-where. I can’t imagine anyone putting such things in the dilapidated homes surrounding us.
It doesn’t take long for the beggars to find us. A rough-looking character with body-length white dreadlocks asks for a beer and then offers bud when we decline. He’s the green man, he says. By the end of our first beers, we attract another man. He seems more well-to-do than the others. His car looks newer. His clothes look cleaner. He has all of his teeth, a recent haircut, and enough weight to suggest that the food isn’t too unaffordable for his appetite. He’s polite and speaks a kind of English I can understand.
He also says he’s a cop and that drinking beer in the street is illegal. I begin to second-guess my shortcut through Belize.
But Aaron seems cool with our lawlessness and even offers to show us around town if we share. He’s just looking for a good time, and arresting tourists isn’t his kind of fun. We climb in while he opens a beer with his teeth and waves to another cop. In the back of my mind, I wonder if this is how the police arrest people in Belize — by passively luring them to jail.
Our tour of the city surpasses the beer and our appetites. We stop to buy hotdogs from a street vendor outside the police station. The place is overrun with Aaron’s cop friends. Even in uniform, they’re drinking beer and joking around the street. Stories about crime in the city, drug trafficking, muggings, murders, and robberies abound among these people. Aaron isn’t without his own claims to fame, either. I get the impression that law in Belize is a lot like everything else — incredibly lax and unprofessional. One of the woman cops even offers to show us crime scene photos if we’ll buy rum and beer for the overnight crew.
What kind of adventure traveler would decline such an offer?
Over rum and beer, Rick and I meet the police of Belize City. Young, old, male, female, black, white, brown — they’re all just as diverse as the civilians. Some seem more laid back than others, but everyone in the office greets us with a smile and pours a drink. The woman cop comes through on her promise and plays a slideshow of gruesome photos. Her descriptions of the murder scenes and violent stabbings match the bloody images before us. One series of photos shows a deadly motorcycle wreck. She says the rider collided with a backhoe. In the photo, pieces of face and brain are pictured all over the bucket and cab.
This is real-life carnage. These are real bodies of real people who lived real lives and then died real, violent deaths. By the second round of rum and dead bodies, I call the night quits. Aaron drives me to the hotel, and I leave him and Rick to the rest of their night. I’ve had enough of Belize for one day.
I wake the next morning to pounding at my door. It’s Rick, and he’s very upset. After going out with Aaron and coming back to the hotel at some ungodly hour, he finally made it to bed. He stammers something about drugs, a bar, and more booze. And then he describes waking later in the morning to find Aaron rifling through his things. He thinks he forgot to lock his door, and now he’s missing an iPhone and USD $500 in cash.
I’m stupefied at first, and then everything seems to make sense. When Rick tells his story to the police, they all but laugh. Aaron Wilson, they say, is no cop. He’s only the most famous police impersonator in all of Belize. A quick Internet search of Aaron’s name dredges stories from 2010 verifying his identity and these claims.
Aaron has a history of impersonating police officers and theft. He even fooled the Belize City police department itself into thinking he’s a cop by claiming to be a transfer from another district.
The gravity of the situation hits Rick pretty hard. Aaron Wilson is a con artist extraordinaire. He won’t be found in anytime soon. Rick’s phone and money are long gone. Telling the police we drank and partied in their own precinct with other cops who freely associate with a known criminal won’t help, either. Even if they do find Aaron or press charges against corrupt police officers, the only way any of these people will stand trial is if Rick stays to accuse them. This, of course, is not in his Belizian vacation itinerary.
By three o’clock of the same day, Rick boards his dive boat minus a big sum of money and plus a very memorable lesson.
I spend the remainder of my days in Belize City among like-minded travelers at the much-more-affordable Seaside Guesthouse. I don’t know why I stay three additional days in Belize City. Quite possibly, a little fear about the road ahead has set in. If Belize — the English-speaking, modern testament to Central America — is this rough, what must Guatemala be like? What kind of craziness can I expect in Honduras and El Salvador?
I pretend to entertain the idea that I’m going diving, but even that excuse fails to convince me by day two. I realize that Belize should only have been a bridge to Guatemala and no more. The immigration officer was doing me a favor by trying to limit my stay. A three-day transit visa would have sent me directly to the border and away from this nonsense with the cops.
But a few days of rest at the Seaside Guesthouse does me well. The manager of the place is a level-headed, no-nonsense kind of woman with a quick wit and a smart mouth. For these reasons, we get along perfectly and squander entire mornings in deep conversation with each other. I learn about business in Belize. It is as corrupt as I expected. I learn first hand about the police, too. Her brother has a career in law enforcement and even wrote a book about the craziness he sees — as if I needed any more confirmation.
I pull the trigger on leaving after five days in Belize. A two hour ride takes me across the country to San Ignacio where I spend one last uneventful night. These five days have cost almost USD $300. I didn’t get to see world-class diving, the beautiful coastline of keys, or the incredible bio-diversity in the nature preserves.
I went to Belize, and all I got was this lousy story.